June 10, 2023

Knowledge in Physics

In the current educational climate, knowledge is certainly power. Much of the conversation I witness daily surrounds the acquisition of knowledge and how to make it stick.

If we think particularly about the Science GCSEs (I’ll refer to AQA, as that is the exam board I am most familiar with) then we can attribute two of the three assessment objectives (contributing to 80% of the examinations) to proving knowledge or using knowledge (AQA, 2016). So we can establish quite quickly that, at least for the GCSE, knowledge is very important. That knowledge doesn’t just appear when students reach year 11, it has to be built up over the entire school career of a child. However, up to secondary school much of science is about working scientifically, the word knowledge is only directly linked to the word scientific in the Upper Key Stage 2 curriculum. There is a focus on working scientifically and exploring phenomena when learning about science in primary school. American research concurs – science that children do up to ‘high school’ is less about theory and explanation and more focused on the method of science  (National Research Council, 2007). Aside from that, we’ve known for some time that children come to secondary school with misconceptions (Driver, 1985 – Children’s ideas in science). I firmly believe that this demonstrates the importance of knowledge within the secondary science curriculum.

Why is this particularly important to physics? It’s my experience that lots of science teachers (not just physicists) believe that ability in physics is directly linked to ability in maths, or more generally problem analysis and solving ability. There’s research that concludes the positive correlation between maths ability and physics ability (Wenno, 2015). There is absolutely no doubt of the importance of maths in physics. However, physics is a subject in its own right and it has its own knowledge base, and we can even use knowledge to reach some of the maths (that’s a completely different article though). If we’re thinking about formal, summative assessment of physics in England, the Physics GCSE exam, it’s not an ‘applied maths’ paper, more than half of the examination is attributed to physics (whether that’s knowledge, understanding or application).

For me, there is a conversation to be had with students and teachers, where we have to explain that yes, physics contains maths and the further you go, the more maths there will be but physics is not limited to maths, there is knowledge and understanding that goes far and deep without talking about maths. If you’re not with me yet, flip this idea. For example a student comes to you and says “I’m not coming to Physics lessons anymore, I’ll just do the maths.” You’d probably be appalled, you’d probably tell them something like “But Physics is much more than maths!” I think it’s important to appreciate physics as equally knowledge rich as the other sciences (especially at secondary school level) and particularly in schools, if we can bring this to the fore then we may be able to sidestep the ‘physics is hard because of maths’ argument in a big way.

There are practical and simple ways to embed presenting knowledge, getting knowledge and retrieving knowledge into physics lessons. There is significant discussion about retrieval practice and I urge you to read Kate Jones’ book on the subject. Unlike other ‘trends’ in education, I hope this one sticks around (because knowing stuff is brilliant, isn’t it!?). I’ll present just some of these methods, which aren’t necessarily original but they work.

Quick 6/4 More

Each lesson starts with six quick fire retrieval questions and ends with ‘four more’. I can’t take credit for the ‘Quick 6’ name, that goes to my current Assistant Principal. Depending on the lesson and class I might use a ‘Last lesson, last week, last topic’ grid, with two questions for each. Alternatively I may ask questions that link directly to what came before or that probes the prior knowledge of students from an earlier stage of learning. The beauty of the ‘4 more’ ending to the lesson is I can choose to plan my questions in advance or pick four questions that students struggled with in the lesson, or pick something I’m thinking about from last lesson that links to next lesson. Every lesson I know students have recalled 10 bits of information and my the rest of my lesson is sandwiched with knowledge.

Knowledge organisers

There’s lots of reading on Knowledge Organisers – here is my favourite. Recently I’ve been creating knowledge organisers for our KS3 curriculum and this process highlights the sheer volume of knowledge that we want students to learn, but chunking the knowledge base down really does help to identify key points in a topic or scheme of learning and is also useful from a professional development point of view, as you gain insight into the foundational knowledge underpinning the topic. We’ve also found that identifying ‘missed knowledge’ (through absence) can help to get students back on track with their learning and knowledge organisers can support this – both proactively and retrospectively.

Information –> Targeted Questions –> Review

This is certainly simplistic but it is flexible. One of the challenges I’ve faced with my less able classes is getting them to actively take on new information, which is frequently conceptual or abstract in physics. Admittedly, I spend a lot of time, prior to the lesson, with the information, chunking it down, restructuring, rephrasing and sticking it all back together but it is ultimately worth-while. When I provide students with this information I then question students on the links between the different points or sentences. This usually goes on for a while, I repeat (with slight tweaks) my questions at least two or three times to different students. I ask them to summarise or ask questions of each other. Sometimes I initially leave the information on the board for the students to see, but eventually it’s removed –  they’ll answer some new questions or write a summary. This also works with the ‘DART’ (Directed Active Reading Task’) style of task – though admittedly I tend to use this for classes that are more confident readers. The students really do buy into it, sometimes becoming competitive but always appreciating that you are spending time on the information and that it is important.

Everything on…

I’ve invited students to tackle this essentially goal-free challenge many times and it works in the vast majority of cases. I’ve used it as revision, at the start of a topic to identify current knowledge or misconceptions and to consolidate learning. Again, simple, students ‘brain dump’ what they know about a word or topic. We can take it further, extending what they’ve started with using questioning. It’s a technique which I’ve found very useful at exposing the knowledge behind student understanding and at revealing the importance of knowledge to students.

Whilst simple, I genuinely believe these ideas have improved my ability to convey knowledge to students as they’ve allowed me to place knowledge at the centre of the learning that takes place in my classroom – because knowing physics is brilliant.

Let me know if you try or tweak any of these methods. I’d love to hear about them.

Featured photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash

Currently a Physics teacher at a secondary academy in Nottinghamshire with an interest in evidence based teaching, curriculum and engagement with science. I also work with South Yorkshire Future to raise the profile of the profession in the region.

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